Columbia proves prejudice allegations false

By Amanda Murphy

Suriya Smiley’s claim that Columbia discriminated on the basis of ethnicity when terminating the former adjunct professor was recently dismissed by U.S. federal court.

On Nov. 2, 2010, Judge Samuel Der Yeghian issued an opinion that Smiley failed to prove Columbia discriminated when investigating the claim she made ethnically insensitive remarks in class.

“After considering all of the evidence in its totality, Smiley has failed to point to sufficient evidence to show that Columbia’s given reason for terminating employment was a pretext,” the court order stated.

Because of the loss, she will have to pay Columbia $3,300 in costs that will cover a variety of fees it incurred during the lawsuit, said Annice Kelly, vice president of Legal Affairs and General Counsel.

“The court found [Columbia] did not discriminate against Smiley, which is good for the students to know and other employees to know,” Kelly said.

In December 2008, Smiley, who is of Palestinian origin, was notified by Stephanie Downs, assistant director of Student Affairs, of a Jewish student’s complaint that she had made anti-Semitic comments in class. On Jan. 16, 2009, Barbara Calabrese, chair of the Radio Department, and Louise Love, assistant provost at the time and now the vice president of Academic Affairs, met with Smiley to inform her of the complaints. The complaint led to an investigation and Smiley’s termination from the college.

Love signed an affidavit, stating she believed Smiley “did not observe professional decorum and did not understand the boundaries between faculty and student,” the opinion noted.

Columbia’s investigation into the allegations was thorough enough to serve as grounds for termination, the court opinion concluded, noting “it was not unreasonable for Columbia to expect that Smiley would teach her classes without humiliating her students and causing distress.”

Smiley filed a lawsuit against the college on Oct. 5, 2009, alleging she had relieved of her position on the basis of race and national origin and seeking $300,000 in damages.

Smiley, who taught in the Radio Department for 14 years prior to her termination, came under scrutiny when a student filed a complaint claiming Smiley said, “I should have known you were Jewish by the size of your nose,” the opinion stated.

The student said Smiley “repeatedly referred to his Jewish heritage while making general statements about Jews and made some references in a manner the student believed to

be derogatory.”

In addition, the student claimed Smiley had engaged in potentially sexually harassing conduct and humiliated

the student.

Smiley denied making the inappropriate comments toward the student or engaging in harassing behavior when approached by Columbia and in court.

The press release published by Smiley’s legal counsel, the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Chicago, CAIR on Oct. 5, 2009 stated neither eight of the other students who were present in the class nor the teacher’s assistant observed any anti-Semitic comments or harassment of the

complaining student.

The council is a nonprofit organization, and is America’s largest Islamic civil liberties group.

It also claimed no witnesses were ever contacted or questioned.

“Despite no evidence any misconduct was committed, the college refused to conduct an investigation into the student’s allegation and swiftly fired Smiley,” according to the press release.

The court opinion stated Smiley testified that she believed someone wrote the complaint for the student, and whoever did was racist and held a vendetta against her because of

her heritage.

She also said the student’s written complaint shows literary skills beyond that of the student who accused her, the

opinion said.

“Sue Smiley alleged the investigation and the complaint were a pretext because [she claimed] we really wanted to fire her because she was Arab,” Kelly said.

At court, Smiley produced evidence concerning five instructors at Columbia accused of violating the anti-discrimination and harassment policy of the college.

Smiley claimed these instances were the same as hers but were handled differently.

She failed to prove the instructors were treated more favorably, according to the court order.

“It’s important for the community to know Columbia acts responsibly when a student complained of discrimination against him,” Kelly said. “We appropriately investigated, and we are glad the court vindicated Columbia’s proper action.”